Every year, the Passover seder asks Jews to make a leap of the imagination. According to the Haggada, in every generation we are obligated to regard ourselves as if we had come out of Egypt. In his new translation and commentary on the Haggada, novelist Jonathan Safran Foer calls this demand on the imagination a “radical act of empathy.” “We are asked not to receive a story,” he explains, “but to be characters within it, to feel as if we, ourselves, are being liberated from Egypt.”
Some years, this is easier than others. In the six decades since the Holocaust, American Jews have found themselves feeling singularly blessed with safety and prosperity. Our happiness has been leavened, so to speak, by memories and the sufferings of other Jewish communities and our anxieties over Israel. Yet for the most part, we are able to mark each Pesach in a spirit of gratitude and liberation.
And yet this Passover feels darker than many in recent years. Our celebration of freedom is undermined by our anxiety over Iran and the possibility of a sworn enemy of Israel obtaining a nuclear weapon. This is compounded by uncertainty over the best way to confront the ayatollahs, whether through diplomacy or military action. Each carries risks; neither guarantees success. The recent murders in Toulouse, meanwhile, are reminders that while anti-Semitism is no longer the widespread social ill it once was, there are those who continue to dehumanize Jews and seek their destruction. On the global and personal scales, neither of these tragedies leads to thoughts of liberation.
The challenge of Passover, as always, is to balance the stories we tell ourselves and the lessons we learn. We can focus on deliverance, but end up forgetting the suffering that came before. Or we can dwell on our struggles, and ignore the ways we have flourished as a people. Passover asks us to remember both parts of the story — to hope for redemption in dark times, to empathize with those who struggle in good times. Like a mixture of haroset and bitter herbs, we must learn to taste the bitter with the sweet.
From the staff of New Jersey Jewish News, hag Pesach sameach.